Fight over new home design guidelines becomes central in Prairie Village mayoral race — and it’s gotten personal

Jay Senter - October 8, 2018 11:30 am
Serena Schermoly has posted videos on her campaign channels pushing back on the notion that she’s “in the pocket” of local homebuilders and criticizing the design of her opponent Eric Mikkelson’s home. But she’s continued to receive campaign contributions for homebuilding professionals. Video still from Serena Schermoly campaign video.

The set of new home design regulations approved on an 11-2 vote by the Prairie Village City Council last week has emerged as a bright dividing line between mayoral candidates Eric Mikkelson and Serena Schermoly. And it’s gotten personal.

Schermoly and Ted Odell were the dissenting votes on the new guidelines when they came before the governing body for final approval after months of deliberation last Monday. Schermoly also made an unsuccessful attempt to amend the guidelines to exempt existing homeowners from key provisions on green space and massing.

Mikkelson, on the other hand, has been a strong proponent of the Phase 2 guidelines and cheered their passage during a candidate forum last week, saying they would preserve the character of neighborhoods.

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Schermoly has stressed time and again that her opposition to the guidelines as written came out of a concern for protecting the pocketbooks of residents, who may be forced to incorporate design elements into a home addition that would increase the price of a project. She’s also criticized the design of Mikkelson’s home, saying it violates many of the principles the guidelines put in place.

But support for Schermoly’s campaign from members of the homebuilding industry has attracted scrutiny since before the primary — and it’s come to the fore again over the past week.

Homebuilders organize support for Schermoly campaign

In July, a Prairie Village resident posted a series of photos on Next Door showing teardown-rebuild lots with Schermoly’s campaign signs planted in the front yard. Schermoly brushed off the controversy at the time, noting that her campaign had not received any financial contributions from homebuilders.

And in the intervening weeks, she’s used her campaign’s communications channels to push back on the notion promoted by “my opponent’s supporters” that she was “in the pocket of the builders”:

In another video, posted on her Facebook page, Schermoly speaks as photos of Mikkelson’s house — which was completed in 2002 — show up on screen, saying that “his house towers over his neighbors” and that it doesn’t comply with the Phase 1 or Phase 2 regulations approved by the city over the past two years.

Schermoly continues to maintain that her opposition to the guidelines was firmly rooted in a desire to protect homeowners from additional expense they would incur if they had to adhere to massing requirements that would necessitate additional windows and doors on some planes.

However, homebuilding industry professionals’ continued support for her campaign has propelled additional attention over the past several days.

An email message from John Moffitt asked area homebuilders to support Schermoly with campaign donations and placement of yard signs.

On Sept. 28, John Moffitt, Jr., who works both in real estate with John Moffitt & Associates and in homebuilding with MOJO Built homes, sent an email to a group of more than a dozen area housing industry professionals urging them to attend the meeting where the council would vote on the design guidelines.

“ALSO – Our HBA PAC has contributed to Serena’s campaign -(Mayor candidate most of you have met),” Moffitt wrote. “Every builder in that room needs to get her signs placed in any/all properties, & consider a personal contributing (sic) to her campaign.”

Asked about the email, Moffitt pointed out that the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City had put out a questionnaire to all three candidates ahead of the primary a that Schermoly “was the only candidate who was courteous enough to reply.” Mikkelson, however, says that “neither I nor anyone on my campaign team has any recollection or record of receiving a questionnaire from” the HBA. The group endorsed Schermoly earlier this summer, and Moffitt is organizing a campaign meet-and-greet event for Schermoly at a new home on Fontana Street this coming Sunday.

Schermoly also acknowledged last week that her campaign now has received multiple donations from people and groups associated with the homebuilding industry — a change from ahead of the primary when she emphasized that she had taken no money from home builders.

Eric Mikkelson has come out strongly in support of the new guidelines.

But, she says, regardless of the financial contributions, her positions do not align completely with the desires of the HBA, noting that she has always been in favor of the new guidelines as they pertain to teardown-rebuild projects.

“I’m not in the pocket of the builders,” she said Thursday. “I do want to make sure everyone is able to build a home or an addition, and we should let people reinvest in their homes. The homebuilders don’t agree with me completely. The only thing I’m focused on is ways to save residents money.”

Mikkelson’s camp, however, points to Schermoly’s votes as a sign that she hasn’t grasped how strongly the majority of Prairie Village residents felt the need for additional steps to be taken to address neighborhood character.

“Her actions speak for themselves,” said Mikkelson’s campaign manager John Pauldine. “Eric Mikkelson is the experienced, engaged, educated, effective candidate for mayor who stands with the vast majority of Prairie Village residents in supporting common-sense guidelines on teardowns…Eric’s opponent ignored the wishes of most Prairie Village residents when she voted to kill the teardown regulations.”

Schermoly’s responses to the Home Builders Association of Greater Kansas City’s candidate questionnaire from ahead of the primaries follow:

1. What have you identified as the issues of importance to the voters in Prairie Village?

I believe our focus should be the keeping the Charm of our neighborhoods. I know there are concerns about tear down and rebuilds, construction nuisances like early noise and street disruptions, but most important to our residents is that we are making sure the home “fits” the neighborhood. We have other important issues like the placement of bike and pedestrian paths, rising property taxes, community service, the arts and our parks programming. Fundamentally I believe we need to find the balance of keeping the Charm that draws families to our community, while remaining an enviable neighborhood to live in with an aging housing stock.

2. What issues are you familiar with regarding residential building and development in your area?

Some residents feel the Homes are too large for the neighborhood(s). Also, dealing with the construction process, noise, traffic, trash and not being neighborly. We have residents affected by drainage issues. We are in a very important time in our city’s development. Many of the original residents who bought their first Prairie Village home as the neighborhoods developed, are moving out of their homes for a variety of reasons. If the home is sold to a developer, they seek a buyer for the lot and work together on the design. If the home is sold to a resident who moves in, they may be waiting to do the same type of tear-down when its feasible. When homes don’t sell for structural or significant issues, the market offers a variety of Property Managers who manage multiple rental properties around the Village. Each of these constituents have a great opportunity to make our neighborhoods better, but we must work together to find the best solutions.

3. If elected, what steps do you plan to take to address the issues of importance in your city?

As mayor I will support the creation of an architectural review board rather than a narrow adoption of new Phase II Codes. We need to make sure this board keeps the Prairie Village charm by ensuring homes are built with four sided construction and quality materials that meet or exceed the standards our residents expect. Many of our neighborhoods have a variety of home types that might welcome a more unique design. We need to continue to address drainage to protect surrounding neighbors from runoff water. In my professional life and in my time on City Council, it has been critical to me that we bring parties together and really seek to find the best path for all parties.

4. The home building industry is experiencing a serious labor shortage in the construction trades. Would you support local workforce development initiatives to address this issue? Example: Encouraging schools to promote more technical education and careers in the trades. Do you have any proposals on how to approach the issue of workforce development in your city?

Absolutely I would support ways to encourage labor development initiatives. It is all about educating the work force about opportunities and positions that may be available to the worker and showing them a path to get there. I believe in starting young, high schools, reaching out to community college and possibly an intern program. I manage safety and recruiting departments and we experience the same shortage of qualified employees. I specialize in finding, hiring and retaining, drivers, dispatcher, mechanics, fork lift operators, welders and office staff. As, mayor I would look forward to working with the HBA to come up with some good strategies to encourage our residents and neighbors to consider employment in construction industry and the opportunity to develop.

5. The legislature at times considers legislation that proposes statewide licensing or modifies the process of local licensing. Do you support the current system of local licensure for the building industry?

I support the current system and would not support changing the licensing in Prairie Village. I believe it would negatively affect the current resident’s ability to complete projects on their own home.

6. Home builders routinely experience significant delays in the plan review/permitting process. Do you believe local Planning and Development Departments should adhere to a guaranteed and reasonable timeline for plan approval and issuing permits?

Yes, we also need to look at the entire permitting process from start to final inspection to ensure we are doing everything possible to allow construction to be completed as quickly as possible. I also support a web-based program where residents could check on their progress. This software could streamline the process between public works, building permits, inspectors, and contractors, while keeping the neighborhood residents informed about ongoing projects.

7. Do you believe that the City should work with local builders and developers when adopting new building codes and other policies that affect the housing industry?
Examples: changes to the permitting and inspection process, new requirements for land development, etc.

I believe a solution is only possible when ALL stakeholders are involved in the process of adopting new codes and/or polices. I support deliberative forums that would bring stakeholders together to ensure we are making the best decisions for our city and our residents. Builders are responsible for a lot of construction in our city, if we create a climate where builders feel like they can’t provide for the buyer in Prairie Village, they will go to nearby cities with less restrictions. My concern is for the resident who realizes that to solve his cinder-block basement collapse and add another bathroom or sunroom or kitchen, they will fall under the same guidelines we provide builders and may impede their designs by narrow definitions and requirements.

8. Home builders and homeowners continually experience time consuming and costly inconsistencies within numerous Planning and Development Departments (both cities and counties) throughout the state. Homebuyers are then left with delayed closing dates due to these departmental issues, costing them and their builder additional money. On many occasions, builders have lost sales because of these problems too. These processes are not only costly for home builders and homeowners, but also for the jurisdiction. Therefore, would you support statewide legislation which would mandate that cities comply with guidelines and requirements to make the process more efficient?

I have heard from residents and developers that we have had this issue in Prairie Village.

I would support making sure we as a City are doing our part as fast and efficiently as possible. We expect our own contractors to meet our deadlines when they are working on a city project. I would expect the same from our staff.

These “buyers” are future residents of Prairie Village and as a Council Member or Mayor, I will work with the County departments to alert them to our concerns and together we can set and understand the expectations of the residents, builders, agents and County Officials as to how we can work best work together to continue taking care of our aging housing stock.

9. Please provide any final thoughts that you would like to pass along to the HBA regarding your campaign.

Our homes are aging, young families want newer homes with more than one bathroom, higher than 8-foot ceilings, walk-in closets, two-car garages that will fit a minivan. Without these amenities, many families overlook us to get to the school system through another venue.

I am committed and supportive of taking care of our aging housing stock. I strongly support developing ways to allow our Pioneer Residents to Age-in-Place but I am concerned if builders stop investing in our city and we don’t work with organizations like yourself, Prairie Village could end up being a rental community .

I appreciate this opportunity to share my thoughts and concerns.

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